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Standing Proud on the Sidelines

Education: Tutor who guided an autistic teen will see him graduate from high school.

June 27, 2002|BOB POOL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

He was never absent or tardy. He was always in his seat with pencil and notebook ready when the class bell rang. Not once in the ninth, 10th, 11th and 12th grades did he fall asleep during a dry history lecture or shoot a spit wad during a lull in math class.

As perfect as Armando Herman sounds, he won't be stepping forward with the 650 others who have finished their four years at Garfield High School when diplomas are handed out tonight.

But as he watches from the sidelines, no one else at the East Los Angeles ceremony will be prouder of a graduate's accomplishments.

Herman is a classroom aide who for five years assisted Victor Samayoa, an autistic student who is part of a vanguard of youngsters with disabilities being placed in conventional Los Angeles classrooms instead of being assigned to special education classes.

Samayoa, 20, was "mainstreamed" with regular Garfield High students. That meant he was required to take the same courses and the same tests as everyone else, despite his autism--a neurological disorder characterized by difficulty in communication and social interaction.

Symptoms of autism can range across a wide spectrum, from the complete lack of speech or acknowledgment of other people in severe cases to social awkwardness or extreme shyness among higher-functioning individuals such as Samayoa.

Herman, 35, of Boyle Heights was hired by the Los Angeles Unified School District to help make certain Samayoa wasn't overwhelmed by the curriculum and crowds at the 4,500-student Garfield campus.

Together Since 1996

The pair began working together in 1996. And the job was an eye-opener for the youthful-looking Herman--who had graduated from rival Roosevelt High School 10 years earlier.

Herman had been a typical high school student, passing through Roosevelt with little effort or direction. He was accepted at Cal State Los Angeles but never enrolled because of a mix-up with a financial grant.

He took a vocational class instead and worked as a nurse for 3 1/2 years at County-USC Medical Center before becoming a warehouse supervisor in South Pasadena. When a back injury ended that job, Herman returned to vocational school.

There, he enrolled in the first open class he found: a 500-hour program on how to become a special-education aide. Herman was hired at Garfield immediately after finishing the training.

Returning to high school was a jolt, he said. "The biggest shock was the attire and attitude of kids. Their dress is more revealing. And some of their comments are more arrogant now than they were when I was in school."

The curriculum seemed more intense too.

Herman's job was to help Samayoa fit in academically as well as socially at Garfield. So he found himself explaining classroom assignments and tutoring the young man in subjects he had long ago put out of his mind--or in some cases never learned the first time around.

"Algebra was difficult. It seemed like I was from another planet talking about something I couldn't even relate to when I was in high school," Herman said. "I was learning along with Victor."

Herman's biggest lesson was about himself.

"I discovered that I hadn't put 110% into learning when I was in high school. I was about at 80%. I found out here I could have done a whole lot more myself in high school. I could have accomplished a lot more than I did--I could have pursued more."

Los Angeles school officials say mainstreaming has the potential to help children with disabilities accomplish more in the classroom, too. Campuses throughout the school system will be required by December to write a "least-restrictive environment plan" to help guide them, according to Gloria Lopez, director of instructional initiatives for the school district's Division of Special Education.

"We absolutely want more children to follow this young man's footsteps," Lopez said of Samayoa. "We want them to start earlier, so that by the time they reach high school they have had built-in support all along their academic career."

In Samayoa's case, his autism had left him withdrawn and socially inept by the time he was ready to enter high school. That forced Herman to work outside the classroom to teach the boy how to relate to other teenagers and participate in classroom discussions.

Herman also had to teach the Garfield student body a lesson.

"At first kids mocked Victor a lot. There was a lot of teasing: 'He's retarded. He's dumb. Look at the geek.' I intervened a lot at first. I was his shadow, basically.

"Anytime someone caused conflict, I would jump in and say, 'OK, this is Victor. You're going to show a lot more respect to this person.' At first they thought I was his bodyguard or something."

Victor was soon accepted. And even protected by other Garfield teenagers.

"Kids were accepting him for who he is, and not as a person with a disability. As time went on, the older kids would teach the newer ones that this person has been here a while and is OK."

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